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Posted on Sun, Oct 25, 2009 : 5:58 p.m.

Ode to Halloween costumes, plus a warning about bad ones

By Frances Kai-Hwa Wang


Sun Wu Kong, the mighty Monkey King

As I child, observing the world as it was presented to me by the mainstream, I often decided to shut doors myself before anyone actually told me to.

Growing up in the age of Farrah Fawcett, I knew that one had to be blond in order to be beautiful, by definition. My horseback riding friends and I knew from statistics that at 10 years old we were already too tall to ever become jockeys. Common sense told me that I could never become a country-western singer, no matter how many pairs of cowboy boots I owned. Even school assignments like, “If you could live anywhere in time, where would it be?” were problematic because I knew that as a girl, and as a Chinese girl, I would not be able to just “drop in” anywhere in history.

However, once a year, I could be whatever I wanted to be, construct whatever image or story I wanted for myself, travel backwards and forwards in history and literature, creatively cross over any social barriers. It was also a chance to pretend to be pretty and show off how smart I could be.

One night a year — Halloween.

As a child, I was a blackbird, a clown, a jockey. As a young adult, I was Princess Leia, a black widow, Lady Chatterly (I had a sign on my back: “Help Wanted: Gardener…”). My children and I also spend quite a bit of time figuring out how to represent their favorites—Chang Er the Moon Lady, Sun Wu Kong the Monkey King, Sailor Moon, Hello Kitty, Michelle Kwan, Hermione from Harry Potter, Arya the elf from Eragon, Saki Hanajima from Fruits Basket, The Ottoman Empire and Chibi Hong Kong from Hetalia, a Spam Musubi, and a bag of Kokuho rice. I love thinking through the details, the adaptations, the representations.

I would never buy a store-bought costume, there is no craft in it. Besides, instead of allowing me to show the world how I want to see myself, many of these store-bought costumes reveal how the world sees me. Oftentimes, I did not even know.

Every Halloween, activists and writers in the ethnic media catalogue and protest the year’s most egregious offenders of taste and racist stereotyping. This year, it started when the “Pocahottie” costume crossed my desktop, “Is that an ear of corn in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?” Then came the “Illegal Alien costume” complete with green alien eyes, orange prison jumpsuit, and a green card. The “Illegal Alien mask” adds a big bushy mustache to the green alien eyes, making the implications quite clear.

There is the “Barakula” latex mask turning our respected president into a vampire — sucking the lifeblood out of the health care system? The “Fee Ling Yu” mask of an “Oriental” man sports a creepy buck-toothed smile, “If you’ve ordered take-out and you see this fortune cookie at your door, keep it locked.” There are more.

Several years ago, I helped local activist Linh Song with her national protest against the offensive “Kung Fool” costume, a gross latex mask stamped with every “Oriental” stereotype, topped off with a headband with the Chinese words for “loser.” This year, as the Halloween catalogues show up in the mail, I rush to recycle them before the kids come home from school. They do not yet need to know.

Asian American blogger, Angry Asian Man, captures the absurdity best when he describes the “Teen Asian Dragon Lady” costume: “Yes, your teenage daughter can dress up like a Suzie Wong-like prostitute, complete with Oriental fan.”

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Ann Arbor and the Big Island of Hawaii. She is editor of Asian American Village and a popular speaker on Asian Pacific American and multicultural issues. Check out her Web site at, her blog at, or e-mail her at


Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Fri, Oct 30, 2009 : 5:33 a.m.

Your best bet at this point would be to ask your friends and family in the community to borrow. Or make a run out to the ethnic communities in Chicago, Toronto, or Windsor. There are many online stores that sell authentic traditional clothing. "Asian" is very broad, of course. It depends on what you are looking for.


Thu, Oct 29, 2009 : 8:43 p.m.

Frances, would there be any place I can find traditional Asian Halloween costume? Help~!

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Tue, Oct 27, 2009 : 7:34 a.m.

There certainly used to be a divide between Northeast Asians, South Asians, Southeast Asians, and Pacific Islanders, but that was because historically, the first Asians to come to America 200 years ago were primarily Chinese and Japanese (some Sikhs and Filipinos, too, but not as many), so it was a numbers thing. The US Census Bureau defines "Asian Pacific American" as people living in America whose ethnic or national origin comes from 47 different countries or ethnic groups. People in Asian Pacific American Studies, media, and activism recognize that despite our cultural and linguistic differences, we often face similar hurdles in America and are concerned with similar issues, and so work very hard to be inclusive. The young people see it. Last year's GenAPA performance at UM even reached out towards the Middle East and included the Persian Students Association. However, sometimes it is difficult for the immigrant generation in particular to catch up on Asian Pacific American history and see the commonalities and cross over the cultural and linguistic and political gaps to work with other Asian Pacific Americans. We are a random political grouping. We are grouped together because we face the same type of discrimination in America (and because we all look the same to mainstream America...joke). As people find their way in America, it is natural to start with one's own ethnic group and then make the step to cross over boundaries and make friends/linkages with other Asian Pacific Americans, Arab Americans, Hispanic Americans, African Americans, and all Americans. It is not easy. Not everyone sees it. There are historical, cultural, and linguistic barriers to cross. But it is being done. After 9/11, the first retaliatory hate crime was the murder of Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sikh American gas station owner in Arizona who happened to wear a turban and a beard--not a terrorist, not a Muslim, not an Arab American. Asian Pacific American and Arab American groups worked together and supported each other, drawing from their own experience and histories. We're all in this together.


Mon, Oct 26, 2009 : 1:44 p.m.

Frances- have you noticed that there seems to be a gulf between Asians ( Chinese/Korean/Japanese, Malaysian/Indonesian),and South Asians Indians/Pakistanis/Sri-Lankan and Bangladeshis)? It is almost as each group doesnt think that the other group is not "Asian", and they rarely work or co-operate together in the public sphere. Being Indian, I have wondered that is so.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang

Mon, Oct 26, 2009 : 11:01 a.m.

No, James Huang (formerly of Ann Arbor) is where he used to write about bicycle suspension forks. Last I heard, he was technical editor at where he gets to test-drive and review all the latest coolest bicycles and bike gear. is a leading blogger who writes about issues of Asian American representation in pop culture. Both are Asian American and both are Angry, but they are different people. Thanks! --Frances


Mon, Oct 26, 2009 : 9:24 a.m.

Frances- is the Angry Asian Blog written by James who used to wrench at Two Wheel Tango?